Sisters of St. Joseph Are Caring For Creation

Photos by Heather Ziegler Sister Kathleen Durkin, CSJ, from left, and Anna Marie Troiani and Rose Mathes are shown in the Retreat Center garden Mount St. Joseph where milkweed supports butterflies and other pollinators.

WHEELING — One of the most fragile and beautiful creatures of nature — the monarch butterfly — has found friends in a 100-acre plot of land that even Winnie the Pooh would envy.

Far from the reaches of modern interference, sisters in the Congregation of St. Joseph at the Mount St. Joseph Motherhouse property in Ohio County, are transforming acres of land into habitats for the Monarch butterfly and other pollinators. And it may be just in time to help stave off the demise of the fascinating winged creatures that dart among the flowers, plants and religious statues that dot the property.

Sister Kathleen Durkin, CSJ, leads the charge at Mount St. Joseph for making sure monarchs and other species of butterflies and moths have the nourishment they need to survive. The key is milkweed.

According to the website Save Our Monarchs, Monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed. The milkweed plant provides all the nourishment the caterpillars need to transform into the adult butterflies. Experts believe the Monarch butterfly is at risk of extinction because of the loss of its habitat stemming from land development and the widespread spraying of weed killer on the fields where they live. West Virginia designated the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) as the official state butterfly in 1995. State lawmakers also adopted the honeybee as the official state insect in 2002.

Several of the nuns enjoy gardening at Mount St. Joseph, both vegetables and flowers, and have patches of ground they tend to throughout the growing season. Durkin said the wide expanse of untouched meadows lends itself to nurturing all types of birds, insects and wildlife. During a tour of the property, Durkin stopped and pointed out a specific bird or, by chance, a Monarch that fluttered by.

“Some of our gardens already had milkweed such as near the retreat center here, and you can see the bees and butterflies there,” Durkin.

Durkin said a monarch habitat takes two to three years to develop. She said on a positive note, deer do not eat milkweed.

At the St. Joseph Retreat Center on the Mount St. Joseph property, the sisters conduct various programs and invite the public to join them in enriching their lives. From knitting groups to religious studies, the retreat center’s doors are open to all. Rose Mathis, coordinator of community life at the Motherhouse, said the nuns are onboard the effort to save the monarchs.

Anna Marie Troiani, executive director of the St. Joseph Retreat Center, said a recent program brought Heather Tokas and her “butterfly encounter” to the sisters. Tokus, a Wellsburg resident, operates the only butterfly farm in West Virginia. She happily educates the public on how to protect and nurture the butterfly population. Her presentation to the sisters included a butterfly tent in which the nuns interacted with the butterflies while admiring their beauty and mystery.

Over the past few decades, Monarch butterfly populations have declined by more than 90 percent. All butterflies, including Monarchs, lay their eggs on host plants. For Monarchs, the only host plant is milkweed which they eat and on which they lay their eggs. Adult Monarch butterflies also like to feed on banana, oranges and watermelon, according to the Save Our Monarchs organization.

Durkin said she learned that it take 30 stems of milkweed to nurture just one Monarch butterfly. Troiani said the milkweed around the Retreat Center has proven a great resource for the Monarchs and bees.

“We watched the caterpillars turn to butterflies on that milkweed that is original at the Retreat Center,” Troiani said. “It’s about caring for creation.”

That session reinforced Durkin’s effort to help the the insects survive and the sister follow the migration of the butterflies. She conversed with Kelly Carter, a teacher at Sherrard Middle School, and Jose Taracido, the farmland habitat program supervisor at the University of California of Pennsylvania to bring about the monarch habitats at Mount St. Joseph. The Monarch Butterfly and Conservation Fund habitat program is an initiative of the National Fish and Wildlife Federation.

Taracido was a speaker for the Monarch Recovery Program at Jacksons Mill near Weston, West Virginia and caught the interest of Carter. He helped her with a wildlife habitat program at the Sherrard school. From there, he was introduced to Durkin. The rest is now history.

Taracido said Mount St. Joseph offers a near perfect location for wildlife habitats as the property already had many natural habitats and nesting sites in place.

“It took about a year and a half. Once they cleared everything, we did some plantings. They had a lot of good habitats already and I pointed out the natural milkweed,” Taracido said.

Taracido said education is the key to bringing people around to the idea of protecting the natural habitats of birds, insects and other threatened species.

“There are a lot of the other species just as bad off as monarchs — insects, native pollinating bees and songbirds. We are also working in Preston and Monongalia counties in West Virginia with specific cuts in the woodlands for the Cerulena warbler. … What you do for one species helps others.”

To learn more about the programs offered at Mount St. Joseph Retreat Center go online to www.stjosephretreatcenter.org; email saintjosephretreat center137@gmail.com; or call 304-232-8160 ext. 112.

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